Thursday, September 24, 2015


Year 7, Day 267 - 9/24/15 - Movie #2,159

BEFORE: This is the most recent Matthew McConnaughey film, I'm mixing up his chronology just a bit, because I need the lead-out that tomorrow's film provides.  So I guess I'm messing with the time stream, but considering the subject matter tonight, I figure maybe that's appropriate.  This is also the 2nd most eagerly anticipated film on the watchlist, after "Star Wars: Episode VII" of course.  I've watched every film directed by Christopher Nolan so far, and they're some of my favorites - "Memento", "The Prestige", "The Dark Knight" trilogy.  OK so I had my issues with "Inception", all that dream-within-a-dream stuff, but I still think the guy is a genius.  I'm willing to go along for the ride, wherever this guy wants to take me.

THE PLOT: A team of explorers travel through a wormhole in space in an attempt to ensure humanity's survival. 

AFTER: Well, now I face a dilemma, because I think I love this film, even though I don't agree with everything it has to say about space/time, and some parts seemed contrived, and overly sentimental, but then, how often do you see a sci-fi film with any sentiment at all?  So maybe that's a good thing, I don't know - maybe I want to say that Nolan reached a bit too far with this plot, but again, maybe that's a good thing, because directors SHOULD reach far, and explore new territory, isn't that what filmmaking, and space exploration, are all about?  You can't fault a guy for trying, and this film represents a LOT of trying.  

But how do I talk about the film, without giving it all away, because I think the plot elements here are just too good to spoil.  I think what I'm going to do is talk about it indirectly, by referencing four other films, one of which is imaginary.  After all, the best films reference other films, especially in the sci-fi genre - you just can't make a film about an alien invasion, or interstellar travel, without paying some kind of homage to the films that have dealt with those subjects before.  And that leads me to: 

"2001: A Space Odyssey" - this Stanley Kubrick film is clearly referenced here.  And I love "2001", but I love its sequel film, "2010" (which also had John Lithgow in it) even more.  Why?  Because a lot of people get confused by the ending of "2010", with its intense time-warping dream sequence.  "2010" went a long way toward explaining what happened in "2001", telling us what happened after to the astronaut Dave Bowman, exactly why the computer HAL went crazy, the purpose of the monolith, and what it all meant for humanity.  My boss, who watches almost as many movies as I do, can't stand the ending because he doesn't understand it.  

I admit I had the inside track, because I read the books by Arthur C. Clarke - and there are FOUR of them, because he followed up "2010" with "2061" and then "3001".  In the later books Dave Bowman and HAL join with the monoliths to usher in a new golden age for humanity, making interstellar travel possible, and colonizing new worlds.  What does "Interstellar" borrow from "2001"?  Well, the talking TARS robot certainly reminds me of HAL, plus there's a mission to Jupiter in "2001" and a mission to Saturn in "Interstellar".  (In the original book of "2001", the mission was to Saturn, but the movie changed it to Jupiter for time's sake.)  Plus we have astronauts in suspended animation for the long trip, and an overall sense that there is another intelligence of sorts running the universe, and watching humanity develop over the centuries.  Sure, a lot of these things appear in many sci-fi stories, but they make me think of "2001".  

Then we have "The Black Hole", a Disney film from 1979, which was about a group of astronauts monitoring the title object, but really, this film was utter nonsense.  DisneyCorp was obviously trying to come up with a film to compete with "Star Wars", because this was decades before Lucasfilm was willing to sell them that franchise - hence the cutesy floating robots assisting the crew.  And human science was just starting to learn about black holes, which were believed to be collapsed stars with such gravity that nothing, not even light, could escape their pull.  So yeah, by all means, let's go send some people to get really close and study one.  But don't get too close, or you'll die - or will you?  Nobody really knows what happens when you get pulled into a black hole, so fuck it, let's try it.  Umm, that's just not how science is supposed to work.  

Stephen Hawking managed to somehow theorize everything we need to know about black holes, and he didn't even have to travel to see one up close, that mofo did it all in his HEAD.  Now that's smart - only I read something recently about how he's changed up his whole theory.  Originally Hawking said that if you get sucked into a black hole, that's it, you're crushed dead because of the gravity.  But now he's saying something about how if you go into a black hole, because of the quantum physics involved, you create two timelines, one in which you're crushed dead, and another where you're not.  
Another theory states that your mass, charge and angular momentum will get preserved, so that's good news, right?  You can do a web search on the "Thorne-Hawking-Preskill bet" if you don't mind your head exploding with all kinds of sciencey stuff.  

As a kid, I got worried when they said there was a black hole at the center of our galaxy - this means we're all doomed, right?  Oh, it would take millions of years to suck in our planet, so I guess I can breathe a little easier.  And for all we know, having a black hole at the center of a galaxy is no big deal, maybe they're what cause galaxies to be formed in the first place, or they help keep them together.  Anyway, the film "The Black Hole" really wimped out when it came to showing audiences what happened when people travel into a black hole, because that's essentially where the film ended.  Ooh, let's leave it up to people's imagination!  What a pussy way to end a sci-fi movie.  

That brings me to the 1997 film "Contact", which was also highly anticipated by me, since I'd read the book by Carl Sagan and had been fascinated by it.  (That film also starred Matthew McConaughey, but he didn't play an astronaut, he played the central character's potential boyfriend, a preacher of sorts who debated the meaning of faith with regards to alien life and interstellar travel.)  Like "2001", "Contact" set out to show the progress of the human race, and what happens after it receives a signal from outer space, eventually decoding the instructions to build a spacecraft that will send an astronaut across the galaxies, thanks to convenient wormholes.  (black holes?  Einstein-Rosen bridges?)
It's a great book, and it's one of the things that got me interested in filmmaking - I wanted so badly to film a version of it, or adapt it into a screenplay, but that was in 1985, and I was 16 or 17 years old, and I figured maybe I should go to film school if I wanted to have any shot at making that screenplay or that film, or any film even remotely like it.  So I went to NYU, then got involved in other projects, things that paid the bills, and someone else made the film "Contact" - which got many things right, but got spoiled by repeated shots of Jodie Foster staring dumbfounded into the camera.  Seriously, there must be a way to convey the majesty and beauty of space travel without your central character always looking like she just got punched in the face.  

"Interstellar" borrows quite a bit from "Contact" as well - a strong female scientist character with an absent father, for example.  And then there's that suggestion again, that someone or something is running the universe, just waiting for humans to take that first sail out into the cosmic ocean, and then making sure that we arrive OK.  Which sort of draws a comparison between faith in God and faith in extraterrestrial life, while ignoring the fact that faith and science don't usually mix all that well.  Do astrophysicists really fall into the same trap that religious people do, believing that some higher power is in charge of everything, including space/time?  I think that scientists are more likely to have faith in things like mathematics and Kepler's laws of planetary motion, rather than saying "Because aliens, that's why."  (OK, maybe for some people belief in E.T.s is equivalent to belief in God, because in both cases, the notion that we humans are all alone in the universe is just too dreadful to consider...)

The fourth film I want to reference is an imaginary one, because it only existed inside my head, after listening to the Boston Album "Third Stage" in 1986.  This was right after I entered film school, and the band Boston hadn't released an album in over a decade, so the rock world was abuzz.  The band's album artwork on their first two records had featured guitars as giant spaceships, but this time their whole album seemed to be ABOUT space travel, with songs like "Cool the Engines", "A New World", and an instrumental called "The Launch".  After a few listens, a movie started to play out in my head, and it was like a long-form music video about a crew of astronauts taking the first near-lightspeed trip to a planet in another solar system.  I even resolved the fact that the album opens with a song about one woman ("Amanda") and closes with a song about another ("Holly Ann") by reasoning that maybe the central astronaut character had to leave his wife, Amanda, behind and by the time he got back to Earth, his daughter, Holly Ann, would be an adult, and his wife would be much older than him (either because of suspended animation during the trip, or the relative nature of time due to near-lightspeed travel.)  

Needless to say, I never made that film either, partially because life got in the way, but also because I figured that famous rock bands weren't in the habit of letting 17-year olds with no filmmaking experience direct long-form music videos for them, and even if they were, I had no idea how to contact the band Boston or their management, and for that matter I had no idea how to make a music video or license the rights to a song or even write a pitch to do any of those things.  Besides, my main focus then was to get through film school and then figure out a way to get a job in the industry.  But I still see parts of that film I never made, every time I listen to that Boston album.  

But this brings me back to "Interstellar", because of the nature of the time/space continuum.  Without giving anything away, what is relativity and how does time pass differently for astronauts?  Well, if you believe that time is the fourth dimension, then whenever you're moving through space, you're also moving through time.  If you want to catch a bus, you need to know the location of the bus station (1st & 2nd dimensions), what level of the terminal the bus leaves from (3rd dimension) and what time it leaves (4th dimension).  And if you need to drive from New York to Boston, 200 miles away, you can figure that at an average speed of 50 mph, it will take you about 4 hours (not including rest stops).  Now, just expand that concept out into space, and you've got the space/time continuum.  The nearest star (except our sun) is 4.5 million light-years away, so if you could travel at light speed (which you can't), it would take you a mere 4.5 million years to get there.  

Relativity states that when a spaceship is traveling very fast, close to the speed of light, one's concept of time depends on where one is.  To someone watching the spaceship whiz by, it would appear to be going very fast, but the time on board would appear to be advancing more slowly.  To someone on board the ship, the universe would seem to be going by very quickly, and time outside the ship would appear to be advancing more quickly.  Einstein's thought experiments stated that people moving at different speeds would experience different time separations between events.  So perhaps a few seconds on board the spaceship would be equivalent to years for an outside observer.  We could send someone off on a very fast ship, and they might come back years later (by their clocks) to find that decades, even centuries, have passed by on Earth.  

Geez, I've written a whole essay on my favorite sci-fi films and on the theory of relativity, and I haven't even discussed "Interstellar" - or have I?  Looking back, I think I've told you everything, and I've also given away nothing.  Because Nolan went in a different direction than I expected, which is why I avoided as many spoilers as I could from reviews, and that's why I've avoided as many as I could while writing this review.  All you really need to know is that the film is set in the near future, and the Earth is close to having its resources used up, so it becomes imperative that someone gets to work on either finding a new planet, or figuring out a way for the human race to survive some other way.

Because fixing the planet is not an option, OK?  We couldn't fix the damn hole in the ozone layer, we couldn't agree on global warming, we couldn't get any real population control measures in place (God forbid, literally) and we never really gave solar power a chance.  See, THIS is why we can't have nice things.  Congratulations, humans, you broke the planet.  Congratulations, religious conservatives who are against birth control and oil companies who refused to consider the alternatives.  The hippies and the liberals were right all along, so enjoy what little time is left, future generations!

This is a fantastic set-up, and for the first two hours (out of three) the film really, really delivered for me.  But then it got all mucked up - for lack of a better term, Nolan "Inception"-ed his own story.  Is this the way space/time really works, or is this the way he needed it to work, to make the story that he wanted to tell?  I strongly suspect the latter.  Which is not a bad thing in itself, it just made a story that was supposed to have universal appeal come from a very personal place (I presume...).  And that's the trap of a time-travel (or a space-time travel) story - wanting to make the pieces fit together SO badly that you cut a few narrative corners here and there, shrug your shoulders and say "Because gravity, that's why." which in the end is just as bad as saying "Because aliens, that's why." or even "Because God, that's why."  

What ends up being universal is the stuff about parents and children - I don't have kids myself, but I can extrapolate, having been one.  Kids have to go to school, parents have to go to work, and so that relationship is always destined to become one where parents and kids are always saying good-bye to each other, whether it's for the day, or until next weekend, or until the end of the business trip, or if Mommy or Daddy have to go away for a much longer period.  OK, so space travel is a special case, but the principle is the same.  

And that's all I'm going to say, I swear.  I'm going to stop before I get myself in trouble.

Also starring Anne Hathaway (last seen in "The Devil Wears Prada"), Jessica Chastain (last seen in "Lawless"), Michael Caine (last seen in "Sleuth"), John Lithgow (last seen in "This Is 40"), Wes Bentley (last seen in "The Claim"), Matt Damon (last seen in "Stuck on You"), Casey Affleck (last seen in "Tower Heist"), David Gyasi, Topher Grace (last seen in "The Big Wedding"), Mackenzie Foy, the voice of Bill Irwin, with cameos from David Oyelowo (last seen in "The Last King of Scotland"), William Devane (last seen in "Family Plot"), Ellen Burstyn (last seen in "When a Man Loves a Woman").

RATING: 8 out of 10 blackboards full of equations

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